Definition of Paradox
A paradox is a statement that appears at first to be contradictory, but upon reflection then makes sense. This literary device is commonly used to engage a reader to discover an underlying logic in a seemingly self-contradictory statement or phrase. As a result, paradox allows readers to understand concepts in a different and even non-traditional way.
For example, playwright George Bernard Shaw famously stated the paradox that “youth is wasted on the young.” At first, it is contradictory in the sense that the “young” are the ones that embody “youth,” so therefore it cannot be “wasted” on them. However, this paradox makes sense upon reflection. It illuminates the idea that young people may not have the perspective of older people as far as what is truly important or valuable.
Youth, in this case, implies a vibrancy and energy that can be put towards those very actions that are important and valuable, yet young people may not recognize what they are. Whereas older people, who may recognize which actions have importance or value, often don’t feel such vitality or willingness to take risks to do them. As a result, the very group who would benefit from youth due to their perspective are the ones who, by definition, aren’t youthful.
Common Examples of Paradox
There are many common examples of paradox in everyday conversation and writing. Here are some well-known and familiar uses of this literary device:
- less is more
- do the thing you think you cannot do
- you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t
- the enemy of my enemy is my friend
- the beginning of the end
- if you don’t risk anything, you risk everything
- earn money by spending it
- nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent
- the pen is mightier than the sword
- the more you give, the more you get
- living in the present for the future
- the best way out is always through
- the louder you are, the less they hear
- impossible is not a word in my vocabulary
- the only constant is change
Examples of Paradox in Movies
Examples are often portrayed in movies as well, through dialogue or situations. This creates humor and/or causes the audience to think and gather greater meaning from a film. Here are some examples of paradox in movies:
- “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.” (Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)
- “If everyone is special, no one is.” (Disney’s The Incredibles)
- “The first rule about fight club is you don’t talk about fight club. The second rule about fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.” (Fight Club)
- “It appears that I now have an outlaw for an in-law.” (Disney’s Robin Hood)
- “Me, I always tell the truth. Even when I lie.” (Scarface)
- “To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.” (The Importance of Being Earnest)
- “I had to come to prison to be a crook.” (The Shawshank Redemption)
- “I haven’t had any [tea] yet, so I can’t very well take more. You mean you can’t very well take less.” (Disney’s Alice in Wonderland)
- “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.” (The Godfather)
- “You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.” (No Country for Old Men)
Famous Examples of Paradox
- “I can’t live with or without you” (With or Without You, lyrics by U2)
- “Whatever you do in life will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it” (Ghandi)
- “Men work together…Whether they work together or apart” (Robert Frost)
- “It’s weird not to be weird” (John Lennon)
- “Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once” (Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare)
- “Life is a preparation for the future; and the best preparation for the future is to live as if there were none” (Albert Einstein)
- “I know one thing, that I know nothing” (Socrates, as according to Plato)
- “I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you – Nobody – too?” (Emily Dickinson)
- “I’m My Own Grandpa” (lyrics by Ray Stevens)
- “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” (Animal Farm by George Orwell)
Difference Between Paradox and Oxymoron
Many people confuse paradox and oxymoron as literary devices or find them interchangeable. Both of these terms reflect apparent contradictions when it comes to ideas and phrasing. However, a paradox involves a larger scope than an oxymoron. Paradox is a statement or group of statements that seems to be self-contradictory as to what is logical, yet delivers the message of an inherent plausibility, truth, or meaning.
An oxymoron, however, is a combination and juxtaposition of two words that contradict each other, but serve as a sound or logical figure of speech. Whereas oxymoron is a contradiction in terms, paradox is made up of contradictory phrases or sentences. However, both oxymoron and paradox can achieve similar effects as a means of manipulating language through opposing words and ideas to create deeper meaning.
As a literary device, paradox functions as a means of setting up a situation, idea, or concept that appears on the surface to be contradictory or impossible. However, with further thought, understanding, or reflection, the conflict is resolved due to the discovery of an underlying level of reason or logic. This is effective in that a paradox creates interest and a need for resolution on the part of the reader for understanding. This allows the reader to invest in a literary work as a means of deciphering the meaning of the paradox.
It’s important for writers to construct proper paradox so that the meaning is not lost for the reader. Paradox is dependent upon two elements: 1) a statement or situation which initially appears contradictory; 2) the statement or situation that appears contradictory must, after consideration, be a logical or well-founded premise.
Here are some ways that writers benefit from incorporating metaphor into their work:
Set Up Conflict
Paradox is an excellent literary device as a means of setting up conflict in a work of literature. A paradoxical situation or idea in a literary work creates tension and potential suspense for the reader. For example, a literary character may find themselves in a situation where they must go against law and order as a means of preserving law and order. This type of paradox generates interest for the reader in terms of anticipating the resolution of the conflict.
Paradox is a way for writers to create verbal or situational irony. In a broad sense, irony itself is a literary device in which what appears to be said, expected, or taking place on the surface of a literary work is very different from what is actually the case. Paradox often creates irony in literature, which can deepen the meaning for the reader through humor or a sense of realism due to the complexity and often contradictory ways in which humans behave.
Examples of Paradox in Literature
Paradox is an effective literary device as a means of creating interest in a literary work and engendering thought on the part of the reader. Here are some examples of paradox and how it adds to the significance of well-known literary works:
Example 1: Catch-22 (Joseph Heller)
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
In his novel, Heller creates perhaps the most circuitous and dramatic paradox in literature. War, which is inherently paradoxical on many levels, is the basis of the paradox of Catch-22. This passage explains the contradictory idea that a person who recognizes that putting themselves in harm’s way is “crazy,” is actually “sane” enough to do a mission that will put themselves in harm’s way.
In a sense, Heller’s paradox is a reflection of the way World War I was labeled the “war to end all wars.” The very notion that humans understand the necessity of war to curtail war is both crazy and sane, mirroring the Catch-22 paradox faced by Orr’s character in the novel in terms of flying war missions. Rather than glorifying war and its combatants, Heller’s war paradox creates a sense of irony, absurdity, and even frustration for the reader which, in turn, deepens the meaning of the novel’s theme.
Example 2: Hamlet (William Shakespeare)
I must be cruel only to be kind;
Thus bad begins, and worse remains behind.
In this passage, Shakespeare’s title character reveals the reasoning behind his plan to kill his stepfather/uncle Claudius. Hamlet states he must be “cruel” to be “kind,” which is paradoxical on the surface. However, his apparent cruel act of killing Claudius could be seen as a kindness to Hamlet’s mother, who has unknowingly become the wife and lover of her first husband’s murderer. In addition, though Hamlet also believes that killing Claudius is “bad,” he feels the “worse” will remain behind because his father’s death will be avenged. Therefore, though it appears contradictory that Hamlet’s murder of a murderer requires cruelty for kindness, there is a level of logic to his reasoning.
Example 3: As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner)
I could just remember how my father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time.
This quote is said by Addie Bundren in Faulkner’s novel. She speaks directly to the reader, due to the fact that her voice appears in a chapter subsequent to her death. Addie reveals her own paradoxical nature through this paradoxical theory of her father’s. If the reason for living is to get ready to stay dead for a long time, then there must be no reason for living since the outcome is death. However, there is an inherent truth in this paradox, particularly in terms of religion. Addie recognizes the futility in the idea that in order to achieve a good life after death, one must live in preparation for death rather than living for life. This adds to the realism and complexity of Addie’s character in the novel as she questions the purpose and validity of faith.